Rory MacLean meets Werner Bartsch
I drank my first glass of wine in 1967 on my first Big Jet, a BOAC Boeing 707, then fell in love with my first stewardess. She wore white gloves, a waisted navy uniform and winged pill box hat. When I moved to Europe I began to catch aircraft like buses. Twice a year I was carried home by Freddie Laker, PEOPLExpress and on the maiden Virgin Atlantic New York flight. Two dozen times I rattled down the Berlin Air Corridor on Pan Am 737s. I lost an engine above Rangoon and once had a Qantas jumbo - designed for 456 passengers - all to myself (but only from Melbourne to Sydney). I lost a lover in LAX and found another at LGW. My first travel story won a competition and a flight on Concorde, delivering me to JFK an hour before I’d left Heathrow. And every aircraft I boarded, from a Fairchilds Pilgrim to the Airbus 380, thrilled me: the click of the seat belt, the start of engines, the surge of power, the hurtle down the runway, the anticipation of the miracle.
Werner Bartsch, the Hamburg-based photographer, has a similar passion for flying machines.
‘In Nuremberg where I grew up my brother and I loved to watch aircraft, especially the old Douglas DC-6s and DC-7s,’ he told me. ‘One night in 1977 when I was twelve years old, my brother persuaded me to drive to the airport to record the sound of one of them landing. We sat in the dark beside the runway with a long boom microphone sticking out the car’s window.’ Bartsch’s eyes glinted with amusement. ‘But that was the time of the Baader-Meinhof and suddenly our car was surrounded by armed police, who thought we were about to launch a terrorist attack. Our parents weren’t particularly pleased.’
Bartsch laughed and went on. ‘All the time we were growing up, every three months, our parents offered us the treat of our choice. We always asked to be taken to an airport.’ While at secondary school and technical college, where he studied photography, Bartsch seemed to forget about aircraft. On graduation his skills brought him to the attention of Die ZEIT newspaper, as well as commercial firms like Siemens, Commerzbank, ThyssenKrupp and Volkswagen. He photographed Henry Kissinger, Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, Günter Grass and dozens of other German and foreign politicians and artists. He developed a particular rapport with Helmut Schmidt, capturing some of the most memorable portraits of the former chancellor.
Then in 2008 while on holiday in California, Bartsch happened upon abandoned aeroplanes in a gated desert compound near Victorville.
‘Suddenly I saw the aircraft which I’d known from my childhood, and the sight of them deeply moved me. There were DC-10s and Tristars, plus old DC-8s and 727s which – due to noise and environmental concerns – could never again fly in Europe.’
Forbidden to enter the former airbase, Bartsch began to scan the internet in search of other ‘boneyards’. He identified half-a-dozen storage sites in Arizona where dry climate, low humidity and hard alkaline soil are conducive for long-term storage. He plagued the owners with calls and letters and, in time, was granted unique access to the aeronautical ‘graveyards’.
The result is ‘Desert Birds’, a series of remarkable, moving images of deteriorating, once-glorious flying machines (published by Kehrer Verlag). A cockpit opens on an empty landscape. Sunlight glints off the fuselage of a scavenged DC-3. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential Air Force One – the Super Constellation ‘Columbine One’ named after the state flower of Colorado where his wife was born - bakes in the desert sun. A gangway stands in the middle of an abandoned expanse, awaiting the arrival of aircraft which no longer fly.
But it wasn’t simply the interplay of colour and form which touched Bartsch, or the contrast between sleek aerodynamic design and barren desert expanse.
‘I don’t take a romantic view of these machines,’ Bartsch told me. ‘But I believe that every time we fly somewhere, we leave a little part of ourselves behind in the aircraft. When I look at these old DC-7s and jumbo jets, I’m reminded of the thousands of people who travelled in them, with their hopes, sadnesses and dreams.’
In his portrait work Bartsch usually has an assistant and needs to complete an assignment within a specific time frame but – to create ‘Desert Birds’ – he worked alone, taking hours to compose his shots, making time exposures under the stars as coyotes howled in the distance.
‘The security guards who look after these “graveyards” understood how important these aircraft were to me. Many of them ended up giving me the code to the gates, allowing me to be alone in the desert, with these aeroplanes.’
He went on, ‘This for me is a heart-and soul project. With “Desert Birds” I’ve taken the time to do something that I’ve always wanted to do, something which touches me deeply.’